31 January 2022

Gettin' Back My the Mojo


I used to outline my novels but not my short stories. For them, I'd jot down the basic idea and let it ferment for a few days until the main points worked themselves out. Then I started writing. I usually had a fairly clear idea of the solution if it was a mystery, but I always struggled with how the sleuth would figure it out. That's still one of my biggest problems, and may explain why I write more "crime" stories than true mysteries with a solution.

Recently, an idea tapped on my shoulder, and the more we got acquainted, the more she felt like a novella, which meant I needed a subplot to flesh out her figure. One plot is tough, and subplots, variations on the major theme, are exponentially tougher. In my Zach Barnes series, Barnes's girlfriend Beth Shepard is a writer in her own life, but she also makes book appearances as "Taliesyn Holroyd," who writes over-the-top bodice-ripper romance novels. The real writer is male, but his publisher pays Beth to dress to thrill at signings and pose for pictures on the website because everyone "knows" romance writers are women. The pen name is an in-joke, too: Taliesyn was the legendary bard of King Arther, and even though the name sounds feminine, the guy, if he really existed, was a man.


Consequently, every Barnes story that involves Beth also has a subplot revolving around identity. The most compicated of those, The Night Has 1000 Eyes, involved a character with Dissociative Identity Disorder, what we civilians call "Multiple Personality," and I used Beth's experimenting with different names (Elizabeth, Betty, Betsy, Lizzie, Elspeth, etc.) as she grew up to amplify that same idea.

You see where this is going, right?

Well, I overthought the new idea so much that I painted myself into an intellectual corner. A short story or a novella is short enough so I can go back and tweak detals later to make everything fit instead of micro-planning. The novella is neither fish nor fowl, or maybe both fish and foul play, so it falls between. 

When that idea appeared to me several weeks ago, I knew it required some research, and the sources of the info I needed were close at hand. Unfortunately, I fell down the rabbit hole and got so interested in the research that it got in the way of my half-formed plot. It crowded out the mystery and I couldn't find a way to connect them. It got so bad I even developed a chronological list of scenes (My version of an outline), which I've never done for a short story or novella. The 8000 words in eight or nine scenes kept bouncing off one wall and into another like a racquetball on steroids. I finally put all my ideas and scenes and fragments into a separate file and stuck it in a dark corner so I could go on about my other copious and crucial business. 

Two weeks later, that same idea started nagging again, like the six-year-old in the back seat demanding, "Are we there yet?"

Last week, I decided to attack the story from the opposite direction and introduce the research idea later, which turned it into a subplot without further effort. I spread all those old notes and jottings across my desk and went to work with my favorite fountain pen (A Parker Sonnet, if you care).


Some of the characters would still work, and different details blended with them I found a crime that could logically connect to the research eventually, too. Even better the subplot would become a red herring.

I started writing again with more energy than I've felt in months, no outline, beginning in a completely different place, and using some different people, except for Zach Barnes. I quit every night knowing what the next scene would be. 

Last night, as I lay in bed listening to the wind whipping our foot of new snow, the idea crawled under the covers and spoke to me again. A soft voice whispered, "He didn't do it." That hasn't happened since Megan Traine told me her huge sad secret when I was struggling with Woody Guthrie over a decade ago. The best thing was that I wouldn't have to change any of the new stuff to find the right culprit; adding four or five sentences to a couple of early scenes would fix everything.

When the story starts telling you where you're wrong, you know you're REALLY on the right track. I don't know when I'll finish this first draft. It's not aimed at any deadline, so I don't even care. But it feels like it might actually happen.

Jimi Hendrix once said, "I play a whole concert, some nights I'm just trying to find that one pretty note."

Well, I found that one neat twist.

I've been away a long time. 

How do YOU know when it's really working?

30 January 2022

From the Response Time Front


It's a frequently asked question on the Short Mystery Fiction Society posting board as to how long the wait time is for  replies on short stories submitted to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  The publication's website does not currently provide an official response time, so I mostly depend upon other submitting authors to get an idea of how long my submissions will ne relaxing in the magazine's e-slush pile.

In the last year, according to my personal notes, the response times I had received were running at about eleven to twelve months. Based on that information, I expected to get a reading and a response about November 29, 2021 for my November 29, 2020 short story submission. Therefore, my mind settled in to wait until then with no expectations until about that date.

As time drew close, I learned that two of our contributing SleuthSayer authors (John Floyd & Rob Lopresti) had each recently received a response of acceptance about fourteen months after they had submitted their stories. I subsequently readjusted my mind to a new date of January 29, 2022. Come the evening of January 9, 2022, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an e-mail of acceptance from the AHMM editor. That made for a thirteen month and one week turnaround. The editor must've been reading like crazy over the Christmas and New Years holidays, while the rest of us were socializing, in order to knock three weeks off the response time during that short of a period of time.

Naturally, I understand that some authors don't like that long for an acceptance or rejection on their submission. And yes, it does tie up a story for a length of time. In which case, my suggestion is to write more stories, send out more submissions and forget about them for a while. In the meantime, to improve your odds, write and submit more.

As for my track record, the AHMM editor had just accepted my 48th story in her magazine. That gave me a 66.66% acceptance rate. I will admit the acceptance rate had been higher than that at one time, but it seems I hit a speed bump last year when I received a run of four straight rejections. Now, with that 48th acceptance in hand, I will use this information to more carefully decide what story content and writing style to send her in the future, which should improve my odds. It's a learning curve.

One more slant on the long wait time. It has been mentioned before that whereas EQMM has a shorter turnaround time, that editor tends to read the first few pages of a submission and if the author doesn't capture her interest in those pages, then the read is finished. The editor of AHMM tends to read the entire manuscript, which admittedly does take more time.

Of course, there is another fairly well-paying publication out there where the author's submission is not acknowledged as received and the author may never receive a reply of acceptance or rejection, in which case the submission sets in limbo unless the author sends an e-mail or letter of withdrawal.

In the end, it's the author's story, the author's time involved and the author's decision or business model as to how they wish to proceed on where to submit their creations.

Best of luck to you all. I love reading good stories.

And, while you are here, give us your thoughts on the submission process.

29 January 2022

MacGuffins


  

MacGuffin, according to Wikipedia, is "an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrevelant in itself."

I like that definition, and I like MacGuffins. I like them so much I used them as the basis for my story "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart," which appears in the current (January/February 2022) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The original name for this story, in fact, was "MacGuffins." And by the way, this is the only story, of the two dozen I've sold to AHMM, that involved a title change. Editor Linda Landrigan sent me an email in October asking if I'd mind changing it from "MacGuffins" to "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart" because they wanted to use it for the cover of the Jan/Feb issue and the other title could be more easily used in the cover art. I of course said that'd be fine with me, and it was--but MacGuffins are still the heart of the tale.


Here's a quick summary of the story. Two brothers in the deep south who run a web-design business and love movies are taking a one-day break from work to go fishing together. On their way to the lake they amuse themselves in the car with a game in which one of the two describes a MacGuffin and the other tries to name the movie that features it. When they stop at a filling-station/convenience-store to gas up and grab some snacks, they interrupt a robbery-in-progress by a man who, according to what they heard earlier on their car radio, has already robbed and murdered an attendant at another mini-mart nor far away. And, as it turns out, the movie guessing-game they've been playing is the way they save themselves, and save the day.

At 2300 words, it's a fairly short story--a lot shorter than most of those I've sold to AHMM--and the first half is almost entirely dialogue between the two brothers. That, and the movie theme, made it great fun to write. As for its sale to AH, I suspect it didn't hurt that the term "MacGuffins," although it originated with a film guy named Angus McPhail, was adopted by Alfred Hitchcock and became a common plot device in storytelling. 

With regard to the definition, Wikipedia also describes a MacGuffin as something that is revealed in the first act, then declines in importance, and might reappear at the end of the story. One of the things I like most about the technique is that a MacGuffin serves as a way to link the entire story together, and is sometimes so important to the characters that it drives the plot. Examples: the One Ring in Tolkien's trilogy, the magical suitcase in Fantastic Beasts, the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders.

Anyhow . . . to steal from the text of my story and to include a few other movies I also remember fondly, here's a list of some MacGuffins and the films that used them.


Letters of transit -- Casablanca

The body of a boy hit by a train -- Stand By Me

A giant emerald -- Romancing the Stone

Microfilm of secret government documents -- North by Northwest

A glowing briefcase -- Pulp Fiction

A tattooed map to Dry Land -- Waterworld

A clause from a secret peace treaty -- Foreign Correspondent

Rosebud -- Citizen Kane

A Persian rug -- The Big Lebowski

A WWII soldier whose brothers have all been killed in action -- Saving Private Ryan

A rabbit's foot -- Mission Impossible III

Secret plans for the Death Star -- Star Wars

A black statuette -- The Maltese Falcon

A harmonica -- Once Upon a Time in the West

A coded message in a piece of music -- The Lady Vanishes

Walley World -- National Lampoon's Vacation

An audiotape of a summit-meeting speech -- Escape from New York

A silver necklace with a blue heart -- Titanic

A necklace with a gold-and-red heart -- Vertigo

Radioactive uranium in wine bottles -- Notorious

A red stapler -- Office Space

A consignment of diamonds from a jewelry shop -- Reservoir Dogs

An empty Coke bottle -- The Gods Must Be Crazy

A boy who'll save the world in the far-distant future -- Terminator 2

A baseball bat carved from the wood of a tree -- The Natural

Plans for an aircraft engine -- The 39 Steps

The Holy Grail -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (among others)

Project Genesis -- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

A pocket watch that plays chimes -- For a Few Dollars More

A child's doll stuffed with heroin -- Wait Until Dark


Do you agree with these? (MacGuffins can sometimes be vague.) Can you think of others? Have you ever used MacGuffins in your own fiction? There's a chance you probably have and didn't realize it--I know I've done that.

One last point: I've heard that the key part of the word MacGuffin is "guff," which means utter nonsense. And maybe that's true.

But it works.


28 January 2022

One-Horse Town


 This week, I'm working on a short story, the first in a while that isn't intended for a specific market. Remember that old cliche with the woman tied to a railroad track as the 3:15 to Yuma bears down on her? It's a staple of westerns, but I thought about what that might actually entail if it really happened in 2022. It helps that, on the two days I go into the office, I drive through a quaint little village called Glendale, which is bisected by a major CSX line. Yes, I'm a dork. I watch the trains. So, I fictionalized the village and needed a name.

Do you know how hard names are to come up with? It took me years, literally, to come up with Monticello for Holland Bay. And like a lot of my small town stories, this one takes place in the fictitious constellation of suburbs around Monticello. But it needs a name.

I considered Fernwood and discarded it. Fernwood, for those of you of a certain age, served as the setting for two shows, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2night. Based on a clip from the latter, in which Tom Waits is shanghaied into performing "The Piano Has Been Drinking," I deduced Fernwood existed somewhere along the Ohio Turnpike., which crosses the northern part of the state. Well, Monticello sits to the north, and Fernwood gets a passing mention in both Holland Bay and several short stories that need to come back out of the vault. 

But Fernwood came off as a bit too cutesy. I then considered Willowbrook, a town that not only gets mentioned in passing but features in a short story about a burglar dressed as Santa getting all Grinch on a trailer park on Christmas Eve. In some ways, Willowbrook is based on Lodi, the far-flung exurb of Cleveland where I grew up. (Yes, we all got sick of WMMS playing Creedence's "Lodi" long after Creedence had faded from airplay. Boy, did we get sick of it. It was still playing when the Sex Pistols flamed out and Bruce Springsteen became the king of rock and roll.) And it doesn't really fit the mold for a fictionalized Glendale.

So...

Lift a town from a previous fictional work, one not named Fernwood. Well, Sherwood Anderson wrote about Winesburg, a town based on the very real Clyde, Ohio (which is now, apparently, a suburb of Monticello. Thanks, Sherwood!) Only...

For six months in 1991, I lived ten minutes from a town called Winesburg. In the heart of Ohio's Amish Country. Not quite what I was looking for. It started looking like an homage to another Ohio writer wouldn't work. 

Okay, what about history? Monticello's location in my fictional Ohio sits at the very edge of the historical Connecticut Western Reserve. If you've been to Cleveland or any of the surrounding towns and counties, you see Western Reserve plastered all over the place. It's one of those names like Northcoast that define the region. But I looked more toward Connecticut, which somehow managed to make Northeast Ohio part of the state early on. Virginia and Pennsylvania did that, too, but Pennsylvania borders Ohio, and West Virginia and Kentucky used to be part of Virginia.

A lot of towns in Ohio derive their names from towns in Connecticut. I could have gone with any of the New England states. There's a Boston Township near Cleveland, and settlers from Worcester, MA, came to north central Ohio and decided the English city that gave their hometown its name was spelled stupidly. So they spelled is Wooster. There are only two possible pronunciations. (Mind you, the 1800s was the golden age of simplified spelling.)

But I stuck with good old CT. I avoided Mystic. Too obvious and too close to Dennis Lehane's Mystic River (still my favorite crime novel ever.) But there's a Hartford. There's a Bridgeport. There's a Windsor. All in Ohio. Some are large towns. Others barely a speck on the map - a gas station, a church, and a scattering of houses all in a space shorter than my street in suburban Cincinnati.

One town in CT did not have a town in Ohio: Stoneport. So, in the Celloverse (Can I coin that, or do I need a fan base to do that for me?), settlers from Stoneport, CT came to the Monticello area in the early 1800s to found a town named for their point of origin. So, now I had a town name. Now I could get on with the business of one of Stoneport's uniformed officers finding a woman tied to the track at 3 AM with an Amtrack train bearing down on her.

What? That's not a thing?

27 January 2022

Same Old Rodeo


It's a bleak cold January day, up here in South Dakota. The legislature has been called into session, and the usual barrage of anti-transgender, anti-abortion, anti-CRT, anti-academic freedom, and anti-[insert title here] bills are flying around the Capitol like the snowflakes they are. 

The impeachment hearings for AG Ravnsborg are on-going.

Governor Noem took time out of her busy schedule to go to a gun show in Las Vegas.

Somehow I believe that the firearms and ammunition business would continue to thrive out here, even if she hadn't attended. But she got on TV!

The Summit Arena in Rapid City, SD is going to host the Black Hills Stock Show from January 28-February 5th. This event generally hosts 200,000-300,000 attendees, and so the announcement was made: "As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, there are no health requirements or mandates in place for the event. The Monument officials encourage everyone to stay home if they are sick and be respectful of others." (KELO)  Which makes perfect sense when you realize that right now 1 out of every 25 South Dakotans has an active case of Covid-19. Come for the fun, stay for the ventilator…

So, how to chase the blues away in dark January? Watch TV!

My latest recommendation is Mr. & Mrs. Murder, an Aussie comedy-mystery on Netflix. "Nicola and Charlie Buchanan run an industrial cleaning business specialising in crime scenes". They're also funny, quirky, and it's always sunny and bright. Only one season, but 13 episodes, so enjoy!

Available now on Prime: the Death in Paradise Christmas Special.  

On my soon to be watched list are a couple of police procedurals: Bergerac (Britbox), set on the Isle of Jersey, and Candace Renoir set in France.

And I've just heard that the 4th Season of The Good Karma Hospital has dropped in Britain, which means it will be coming soon to Acorn, which I watch via Prime. TGKH stars Amanda Redman, which makes it a must-see in my book anyway.

Not so cheerful, but fantastically well done is the 1987 production of Carr's A Month in the Country (set in post-WW1 Britain) starring unbelievably young future stars Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh in their first screen roles, & Natasha Richardson in her second. The uncovering of the medieval mural is an experience in itself, along with the eventual discovery of who / what / why...  

Another wonderful walk down nostalgia lane is Cider With Rosie - there's one version, with Timothy Spall (2015), available for free on Amazon, and another (1998), with Laurie Lee (the author) narrating it available on Tubi.  On a dark January day, either is worth it for the wildflowers alone...

And let's not forget Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot:  Evil Under the Sun (1982) where he's joined by Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, James Mason, Jane Birkin, Roddy MacDowell and/or Death on the Nile where he's joined by Bette Davis, David Niven, Simon MacCorkindale, Jane Birkin, Olivia Hussey, Jack Warden, George Kennedy, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, and Mia Farrow all over-acting their little hearts out.

Back to Netflix and comedians:  we laughed our heads off at Russell Howard's Lubricant, Jim Gaffigan's Comedy Monster, Nate Bergatze's The Greatest Average American, Gina Yashere's stand-ups, including her on the new season of The Standups, and many, many more. Plus I just keep Tom Papa's You're Doing Great on file, ready to cheer me up on cold, gray days like today.

Enjoy!

26 January 2022

Rogue Male


My sister sent me a book she picked up at the Blue Hill Library book sale, remarking that A) it had my name on it, and B) a woman she knew had written the introduction.  It’s a recent paperback edition of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, a much celebrated and compelling yarn: think The Most Dangerous Game with Nazis thrown in. 

The first and best movie version is Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt, released in 1941 - Household’s novel came out in 1939 - once you get past Walter Pidgeon in the lead.  (I’ve never bought him in anything, which includes How Green Was My Valley.)  This stumbling block aside, Man Hunt has the hugely endearing Joan Bennett – considerably less sympathetically cast in Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, two later pictures with Lang – and the impeccable George Sanders at very possibly his slimiest, outdoing even the blackmailing bottom-feeder Favell in Rebecca. 

Here’s the hook.  Pidgeon, a renowned big-game hunter, stalks Hitler in Berchtesgaden, and has him in his sights, but he’s caught before he pulls the trigger.  He’s tortured by the Gestapo to get the truth out of him.  Sanders, the most sophisticated and sadistic of the secret police detail, is convinced Pidgeon could only have been acting on instructions from British intelligence.  Pidgeon escapes, through dramatic contrivance, and gets back to England, but Sanders and his goons follow him home.  Enough spoilers.

The most significant difference between the book and the movie is that Household drops you in media res.  There’s no preamble, and no back story.  In fact, the hero, the country, and the target go unnamed – you can certainly infer that it’s Hitler, but he’s never specified.  The book opens with the guy already on the run, and the details get filled in as you go along.  All you know is that he’s being pursued by malevolent adversaries.

This is very much John Buchan territory, The Thirty-Nine Steps.  The paranoia, the noose tightening.  Which is also familiar to Fritz Lang.  Household uses a journey narrative on both the surface level and belowdecks, though.  There’s an atavistic bass note.  In the wild, paranoia is your ally, a sense of the immediate, fight or flight, whether the environment presents as hostile or tame.  Landscape can be psychic, or magicked, just as well as physical. 

This isn’t a new storyline, by any means.  Household is reinventing, or reimagining, a descent.  Beowulf goes into the cave, to face Grendel’s mom.  Orpheus challenges the god of the underworld.  When the guy in Rogue Male goes to earth, literally, like a badger or a bear, hiding in a hole in the ground, he becomes earthen, old, primal. 

Nor is this simply habit, or trope.  This is a theme, for Household.  Victoria Nelson, a Goddard scholar and the author of Gothicka and The Secret Life of Puppets, says in her introduction to this newer edition of the novel, that he’s walking back the clock.  That in order to survive against the primitive, primitive instinct has to resurface.  Old wine in new bottles, we might say.

For all that, it’s one hell of a good story. 

25 January 2022

Building the Perfect Editor


A magazine issue, an anthology,
and a couple of collections
make for a pile of editing.
Over the years I’ve had several thousand pieces of writing accepted for publication, ranging from fillers, jokes, and anecdotes to essays and various forms of non-fiction, to short stories in a variety of genres, to a handful of novels. My work has appeared in anthologies, journals, magazines, newsletters, newspapers, webzines, and other types of publications. I have sold original work and reprints. I have written on assignment, on invitation, and on spec. I have been paid bupkis for some projects and have received payments in the low four figures for others. I have been paid promptly but often not, and too often promised payments never materialized. Through all of this, I have worked with many great editors and with a few who should die from a thousand paper cuts and be left on the side of the road for feral hogs to devour.

Because I have recently been doing more editing than ever before and because I don’t wish for my paper-cut-riddled body to be left on the side of the road, I’ve been pondering the attributes of the perfect editor.

For me, that editor responds promptly, pays promptly (and handsomely), publishes everything I submit, edits with a deft touch that puts a brilliant shine on my near-perfect prose, puts my name on the cover, sends numerous contributor copies, ensures that my work is seen by the most influential reviewers (all of whom recognize my brilliance), and ensures that my work is considered for every appropriate award and best-of-year anthology. No matter how much of an ass I am to work with, a great editor never badmouths me, my work, or my highly inflated ego, and always picks up the tab when we go for dinner and drinks.

CREATION

The reality is that no editor can meet my expectations. All are constrained by the budgets and policies of their publishers as well as by their own strengths and weaknesses.

Still, I can dream, and my dream is to play Dr. Frankenstein and build the perfect editor from the best parts of the editors with whom I’ve worked, all the while hoping my assistant doesn’t bring home the brain from “Abby Normal.”

I would start by creating the environment in which the editor works: A well-funded publishing company that believes in treating content providers (writers, artists, photographers, and others) as important collaborators to be respected and not as necessary evils to be tolerated.

The editor would have an unlimited amount of time to accomplish tasks and would have stellar support staff, from editorial assistants to designers to contract managers to bookkeeping and accounting staff.

The editor would have all the necessary tools, from the latest hardware and software to appropriate reference materials to comfortable seating and favorite writing implements.

The editor would have the ability to focus on a single task when appropriate and the ability to juggle multiple tasks when necessary.

The editor would have a superior sense of story and the ability to pinpoint exactly where and why a story jumps the rails.

The editor would have superior copyediting skills or a trusted assistant editor with these skills.

The editor would have infinite patience to work with new writers and guide them through the publishing process as well as to answer the same questions ad nauseam.

The editor would have exemplary people skills and, perhaps more important, a sense of empathy that allows the editor to understand what writers experience when they sit at the keyboard to create or when they anxiously check email every thirty-seven seconds awaiting responses to queries, submissions, and revisions.

RELEASE

Alas, once I release the perfect editor into the world of publishing, the newly created creature, lovingly assembled from the best of every editor who has ever existed, is likely to become a jaded, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, hard-drinking SOB whose days consist of rejecting the brilliant work of new writers, publishing the work of washed-up hacks, introducing errors during editing, complaining about the production department, lobbying for a raise (if on-staff) or a bigger advance (if freelance), and bemoaning its failed writing career.

Damn, I really need to quit staring in the mirror when I write these things.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this post is intended to resemble any actual editors, living or dead, except those devoured by feral hogs.

James A. Hearn and Michael Bracken
at the 2019 Shamus Awards Banquet
in Dallas.
“Blindsided,” co-authored with James A. Hearn and published in the September/October 2021 issue of
Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, has been nominated for an Edgar Award.

Congratulations to fellow SleuthSayer R.T. Lawton, whose story “The Road to Hana” (AHMM, May/June 2021), was also nominated for an Edgar.

24 January 2022

Seven Steps


Nancy Pickard is a U.S. crime novelist. She has won five Macavity Awards, four Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, and a Shamus Award. She is the only author to win all four awards. She also served on the board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America.

I don't remember exactly when I met Nancy Picard, sometime in the early 90's is my guess. That was when I began to first be published and Elmer & I opened our mystery bookstore in Austin in 1990. I remember she & both were very early members of Sisters in Crime and Nancy is a past National President of S-in-C. I do know I've always admired her mystery novels. Reading Nancy's books are like peeling an onion back to  add to the story and destroy your early guesses. Naturally, you must keep turning pages and peeling layers until you get to the end & the solution. 

When I read this article about Nancy's book: Seven Steps on a Writer's Path, I knew I wanted to share this information with all of you. Her book is available in both Paperback & Kindle formats. Page numbers refer to the trade paperback edition.                                                                                                                — Jan Grape

As Nancy Pickard looked back over her own career and that of her many writer friends, she saw herself and most of them struggling through stages of unhappiness, of wanting, of commitment, of wavering, of letting go, of immersion, and of fulfillment. It looked very much like a path to her, and it felt true, in the way only actual lived experience does feel.

"And thus was born the Seven Steps on the Writer's Path. At first it was a workshop given   by me, then it was a retreat presented by Lynn, and now it is a book written by both of us." p. xii

SEVEN STEPS

by Nancy Pickard

Starting Out

"Writing is a path as full of darkness as it is of light, and so the way ahead is hard to see. There are so many ominous shadows, unpredictable gusts of wind, unexpected blinding shafts of sunlight. It’s easy to get lost, to trip over our own hidden roots, or plunge unaware into unexplored caverns in our psyche. As writers, we hardly ever know where we’re going. The only thing most of us know how to do is to keep putting one foot after the other in the darkness and trust that eventually we’ll get there." p. 1

When Lynn and I each started our own writing careers, we didn’t even know there was a path, much less that there are steps along it. We hope that knowing these things will give you an advantage that writers who came before you didn’t have.

Step One: Unhappiness

"Call this step in the creative process what you will, according to your own experience of it. Name it the 'creative urge,' if you like. Call it an 'itch' or 'creative tension' or 'restlessness' or 'discontent.' Regardless of what label any of us gives this step, it’s a common state and the first step for all of us.

"Unhappiness, to one degree or another, is where all creativity begins." p. 9

What a way to start a book, with unhappiness! But we had to, because that’s where the writing starts… or the drawing… or the music… or any other form of creativity. We discovered early on that the steps in this book apply to any creative person, not just to writers.

Step Two: Wanting

"It sounds so simple. All you have to do is want. But it must not be that simple in real life, or else why wouldn't more people be writing what, where, when, as much, and as well as they want to? Instead, they're still languishing in a state of unsatisfied desire. They're stuck back in step one, Unhappiness, and they can't seem to get out of it, no matter how bravely they face it or how honestly they acknowledge what they want from writing.

"The trouble may be that most of us tend to assume that wanting is only about feeling. Certainly, depth of desire is part of the answer, but what we're missing when we stop there is the second part of wanting, the action part…" pp. 38-39

This chapter required Lynn and me to be excruciatingly honest with ourselves and our readers about what we really want in our lives and our writing. It was good for us. It'll be good for you, too.

Step Three: Commitment

"Some people might joke that writers need to be committed, rather than to have commitment, and sometimes we feel as if we can only agree with them. It’s probably true that we're all at least a little bit crazy. But then, truly committed people usually look a little-or very–crazy to the outside world. If you don't look just a little bit nuts, you’re probably not committed enough. Writers like L. Frank Baum -- whose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was rejected dozens of times -- who keep sending their manuscripts to publishers look like crazy fools to people who will be only too glad to tell them so." p. 70

Step Four: Wavering

"Wavering tends to arrive when it’s least expected and least welcome. Certainly, you'd never willingly invite it, but surprise, here it is. Such as when you're forty pages into a book and you thought it was going to be smooth sailing from here on out, but now you’re stuck. Or like when you’ve submitted your poems to magazines and you're feeling really good and hopeful about them–and the rejection letters start coming in. Or like when you've arranged to write for a couple of hours every day, and then other responsibilities crop up, just when you thought you had them beat down." p. 103

This is one of those steps where it's truly wonderful to know that you have lots of company. You're not alone. You're not the only crazy one. I'm there with you many days. So is Lynn. So is every writer we know and all of the ones we don’t know. We all waver. We all hate it. We all get through it, one way or another, and having each other's hands to hold is a big help and comfort.

Step Five: Letting Go

"Letting go is the magic moment when you step off into space, trusting that you won't fall on your face. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, when we make a leap of faith, it is the actual act of stepping out that creates a bridge to see us safely to the other side." p. 137

This is my favorite step of all. I adore this step. This is where miracles happen. This step sometimes terrifies me. A lot of times in my life I have wanted, oh how I have wanted, to take this step, but I just couldn’t do it. And then sometimes I do take it, and oh, the joy of that!

Step Six: Immersion

"… be loyal to your writing. Be just as loyal as you are to your dearest friend or loved one. If your friend or your child really needed your attention, would you let your attention wander? Or would you ignore the telephone, put everything else on hold, and turn fully toward him or her? Your writing deserves that kind of loyalty and attention, too. If you can't or won't manage to show as much loyalty to your writing as you show to your friends and family, we guarantee that while you may experience moments of writing bliss, you'll never experience the satisfaction of going all the way.

"Be loyal." p. 177

It's hard for a lot of people, some women especially, I think, to be loyal to their writing, or even to think of it in that way. They let everything and everybody pull them away from it, as if they couldn't care less. But they do care, we know they do, and they suffer for it. If only they knew, their writing wants their love and attention, too!

Step Seven: Fulfillment

"So we have to ask you: where’s your cart, and where’s your horse?

"Here are some telltale things that writers say that alert us to improper horse/cart placement. You'll have to pardon us if our answers sound a bit jaded; we've heard these more times than you'd care to know: 'Should I copyright it first?' (You should write it first.) 'What if I send a query to several publishers and they all want it?' (You should only have such problems. Just worry about writing it.) 'What if somebody steals my ideas?' (Just write the damned thing. If you're worried about burglars, get a gun.) 'I've written three chapters of a novel. Should I start sending it out to agents now?' (No, you should write Chapter 4 now.) 'I was thinking of sending my poems out now and waiting to do my rewriting after I hear what the editors have to say.' (We're thinking you should rewrite them now, or you will never hear from any editors.)" p. 208

Dare to dream big, we say in this chapter, but keep dreaming small at the same time. Go ahead and visualize your name on a best-seller list, but also visualize yourself writing that next sentence, paragraph, and page.

23 January 2022

Company Town, Part 2


Last week we peeked in on a Florida spy town and a couple of planned utopian communities. Today we’ll visit a few other curious ‘company towns’.

Celebration, Florida postcard

Celebration
No Mickey Mouse Operation

Walt Disney World is the only corporation I know that’s also a government entity greater than a township, for most purposes a Florida county, the Reedy Creek Control District. Its handpicked residents comprise a few Disney loyalists who ‘vote’ whatever needs voting on. RCCD provides the government-friendly structure for WDW and Disney controls RCCD.

Disney also built the town of Celebration. While retaining critical properties and office buildings, Disney sold houses and apartments to those who could pay, guided with an invisible three-fingered hand through its homeowners association.

Nothing is nefarious. Buyers either agree to ultra-strict rules involving their property or they buy somewhere else without an HOA.

But once upon a time, a trouble-making scofflaw was afoot. In the dark of night, a wicked, subversive rebel crept through Celebration’s oak and cypress. He ducked under well-groomed hanging moss, and planted pink plastic flamingos on neighbors manicured lawns. Plastic pink flamingos (PPF) were strictly forbidden.

The community was outraged! Worse, the PPFs seemed to breed and multiply. These crimes had to be stopped before society collapsed.

The sheriff’s department investigated. Security Officer Obie took 8x10 glossy photographs and fingerprinted the PPFs. Twice they almost captured the miserable miscreant, but the perpetrator faded into the shadows before police could turn their cars around. Terrified residents claimed a chilling voice laughed with abandon, “Mwah-ha-ha-hah.”

Early one morning the tables turned. Authorities caught the bad guy pink-handed, populating neighbors’ lawns with PPF.

Except he was also a good guy. A local minister on a mission, a pastor with a passion for challenging authority whilst having fun.

But fun is precisely how evil takes root. Prosecutors proposed a fine and the PPF reign of terror came to an end.

Holiday tip: Evenings in Celebration are a fun place to visit during the Christmas season with caroling and Disney ‘snow’. (The flakes are made from a soapy substance.)

Sarasota, Florida postcard

Gibsonton
The Circus Comes to Town

In years past, baseball teams, carnivals, and circuses liked to winter in Florida. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey favored the Gulf Coast. In 1927, Ringling bought property in Sarasota and the influx of circus residents influenced the look and feel of the town.

Forty-some miles distant, the ‘The World’s Strangest Couple’, 8½-feet tall Al Tomaini and his 2½-foot tall wife, Jeanie, built a camp at the hamlet of Gibsonton. They established a fire department and police department. The fledgling town became popular with so-called carney ‘freaks’ and sideshow denizens. It became a home where folks couldn’t be judged by outsiders. It developed a carnival ambiance with bright lights and tents, and a sense that residents awaited a call to the big top.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey combined shows, buying up additional land in Florida, including Haines City, where entrepreneurs built Circus World and later Boardwalk and Baseball.

Circuses no longer bore the cachet of turn-of-the-century traveling entertainment extravaganzas. Perhaps Circus World’s park was too close to Disney or too far, but various owners struggled to make a profit. Visitors can sense theme park desperation, and the Haines City projects were doomed.

Meanwhile, tourists were welcomed to visit Ringling’s Sarasota estate with its museums and entertainment venues. Perhaps the most fascinating was an extensive diorama explaining the complex operation of a traveling circus, from the advance man who visited towns arranging for an empty field, permits, water, feed, food, and other servicing, to the clean-up crew that followed the circus. It portrayed the kitchens, medical staff, the vets, the accountants and bookkeepers, housing, administration, and security. Little wonder running off to join the circus fascinated little boys.

Cassadaga, Florida postcard

Cassadaga
I Foresee a Town…

The town of Cassadaga calls itself the Psychic Capital of the World. The village isn’t what I expected. I don’t understand: It has road signs. Residents listen to weather reports. Posters advertise clairvoyant meetings. Hey, shouldn’t psychic citizens simply know?

Seers have no shortage of prophecies and prognostications when it comes to criminal cases. Invariably, predictions prove wrong.

In 1979, St. Cloud, Florida police relied upon Cassadaga fortune tellers rather than criminal science to assist in the homicide of a preacher's wife. They failed miserably.

In 2008, nearly ninety psychics weighed in on the search for little Caylee Anthony. Having pointed police in wrong directions, they failed miserably.

Perhaps most embarrassing was a 2001 case of missing Lillian Martin and her grandson, Joshua Bryant. Cassadaga mediums claimed…

  • A trucker abducted them.
  • The grandmother killed the grandson.
  • The parents killed both the grandmother and the boy.

Wrong. The body of Joshua would be found three years later  virtually on Cassadaga’s doorstep, the victim of a confessed killer.

The FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children maintain that to their knowledge, psychic detectives have never solved a single missing-person case, not one, not ever.

Clearwater, Florida postcard

Clearwater
Imagine a secretive organization…

  • infiltrating more than a hundred US government agencies, embassies, and foreign powers using 5000 or more spies and agents.
  • engaging through its intelligence arm in kidnappings, burglaries, wiretapping, false imprisonment, covert surveillance, and attempted assassinations.
  • declaring war on the FBI and IRS, and breaking into federal courthouses, DoJ and IRS offices.
  • plotting bombings.
  • framing a reporter for murder.
  • framing the mayor of a Florida city for sexual impropriety and reckless/drunken driving.
  • infiltrating newspapers critical of the organization.
  • disappearing the wife of its beloved leader, David Miscavige.
  • taking over a Florida city at the same time it declares itself a victim of persecution.

Now imagine this is no foreign power, no insidious 007 SMERSH, but instead a cult/church/corporation/criminal enterprise called Scientology. We’re talking the religion founded on a bet amongst science fiction writers, a bet gone horribly wrong.

Scientology’s internal Guardian’s Office operates as an intelligence bureau to investigate Scientology’s ‘enemies’. The FBI uncovered an astonishingly lengthy list of clandestine operations. While posing as a religion, Scientology regards its tenets and teachings as trade secrets, its symbols trademarked properties, and, unlike a real church, doesn’t hesitate to take opponents to court. The Church of Scientology (CoS) has not hesitated to use illicit and illegal means to silence its critics.

Scientology fought a ‘war’ with the IRS for recognition as a real religion, eventually overwhelming the agency with unceasing political and legal pressure, as well as infiltrating the IRS and other government bodies.

Shelly Miscavige, wife of current CEO David Miscavige has not been seen since 2006, notwithstanding a reported sighting by the National Enquirer. Former members believe she is held captive at the Church’s compound outside San Bernardino. Although not claiming to have seen her face to face, Los Angeles police believe they spoke with her by telephone.

For the past half century, Scientologists have attempted to surreptitiously take over the city and government of Clearwater. Around 2000, the ‘church’ doubled its land holdings via a thousand secret purchases through shell companies. They've bought up much of the city's waterfront. In a downtown sale of a lot, the seller chose to sell it to the city at a third of the price the 'Church' had offered. Unsurprisingly, the Church sued, claiming religious discrimination. In an attempted coup d’├ętat, Scientologists plotted smear campaigns against the mayor in an attempt to remove him from office.

To me, the most compelling crimes inflicted by the cult of Scientology were against author Paulette Cooper. At the height (or depth) of the plots against her, Scientologists attempted to sue her and her father into bankruptcy, defame her with false accusations about pedophilia and other rumors, and ultimately frame her for bomb plots. At one point they planned to attack her (and according to one report assassinate her) outside Clearwater.

Exciting times. Rather than leave upon a sour note, Let’s visit a couple of company towns outside Florida.

Hershey, Pennsylvania postcard

Hershey, Pennsylvania

Mmm, chocolate. It’s a tasteful company town, for sure. Milton Hershey founded the town in 1903 for company workers and their families. Hershey-built homes provided the most modern amenities of the era, including electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heating. The town maintained a public trolley, free schools including a vocational school to train orphans and the underprivileged. In later years, Hershey built parks, golf courses, a community center, a sports center, a zoo, and an amusement park.

When I visited as a teenager, I took the factory tour, but the part that stuck in my mind was the street lamps– they were shaped like Hershey Kisses, some silvery with the tag of paper in the foil, some just chocolate as shown in the photograph.

Naked City’s Sundial
Naked City’s Sundial

Naked City, Indiana

An hour south of Chicago, a pair of nudist resorts outside of Roselawn, Indiana saw the 1930s launch of a different kind of company town. At one time, the village hosted the Mister and Miss Nude pageants. The state brought obscenity charges against Naked City, which included the showing of an X-rated film, and brought about the resort’s demise. It is now called Sun Aura, which seems to have retained the famous leggy sundial sculpture (at right).

Hoosiers need not worry. Indiana has other nudist camps and colonies, including Our Haven Nature Sanctuary in the town of French Lick, which…

Hey Janice! Stop giggling. Eve! Decorum, you two. Stop it! Ladies! Behave!